It is shoulder to shoulder on the terrace at the Bellevilloise (21 rue Boyer, 20e; metro Gambetta or Ménilmontant) and in the last light of a summer’s night, Paris shimmers below. The view from the former worker’s cooperative in the 20th’s rue Ménilmontant is one that is not just shared with throngs of beautiful young bobos – Paris’ bourgeois bohemians – but with a spectral cast of revellers from the city’s post-revolutionary past.
The winding streets of Paris’ northeast have been the home to bars, restaurants and guinguettes – open air dancehalls – since the early 19th century, when Belleville and the neighbouring village of Ménilmontant sat just outside the city tax limits, and drew the working classes for some cut-price going hard before going home to their workshops and factories.
The Bellevilloise’s sprawling building dates to 1877, when the Commune may have been defeated but was certainly not forgotten; Belleville was newly part of Paris proper, as the 20th became the city’s final arrondissement, out on the volute’s tail. The workers’ nights of organising, educating, poetry and barter may be a thing of the past but the music – Afropop, folk, cabaret or indie depending on the room and the night – remains. As does a hint of 19th-century bucolic fantasy: large olive trees spout from tables in one of the restaurants and stages are framed with foliage.
Next door, La Maroq – the Maroquinerie – books the best of up and coming international indie acts, its alumni reading like a musical who’s who of the late Noughties, from Jose Gonzalez to Pete Doherty to Animal Collective.
Down the hill, the crowd is also decidedly indie at Le Feline (6 rue Victor Letalle, at rue des Panoyaux). This is the quintessential rock and roll bar: cheap (as in barely drinkable) vodka in plastic glasses, Venus in Fur posters, and long-haired bad boy barmen who double as djs. Cool as the kids here may be, they are far from self-conscious, singing along to whatever is dished up, from Plastic Bertrand to Run DMC.
Further into the 11th, the rue Ménilmontant action segues into rue Oberkampf, a street where Parisians come with the simple aim of getting drunk, not unlike their fellow citizens of the 19th-century, but very much unlike the rest of Paris. Apart from the painfully pleased with itself Nouveau Casino (109 rue Oberkampf, 11e), this is Paris after dark at its least affected. Friendly and free, the International Bar (5/7 rue Moret, 11e; metro Rue Saint-Maur) hosts two live local acts a night, and the line up is as diverse as it is edgy.
Across in rue Bagnolet, La Flèche D’Or hosts more mid-level international acts, with crowds that tend to match who is on stage. This former railway station is also known for its local nights and experimental club sets, not to mention its unreliability (management changes and temporary closures are not uncommon). Sunday brunch, beginning at the civilised hour of noon, is a local institution, with live music and a view across the disused tracks that nature seems intent on subsuming.
Back in nature itself, or an idealised version thereof, neo-guinguette Rosa Bonheur (Parc des Buttes Chaumont, 2 allée de la Cascade, 19e; metro Botzaris or Buttes Chaumont) reinvents the Parisian tradition in an 1867 original, with a popular band room, organic picnic food and outdoor tables for warm weather carousing. There is a come-as-you-are atmosphere, fuelled by the owners’ southern (as in South of France) sense of hospitality.
The 20th (along with its neighbours in the 11th, 18th and 19th) might not be everyone’s must-do Paris, but it is a part of the city that has stayed particularly true to its past, while being its most dynamic and diverse. The worker-poets of the 1830s, who swore off sleep to instead live the free lives they aspired to at night, all night, would be proud.
Right across the street from La Flèche D’Or, Mamashelter (109 rue Bagnolet, 20e) is the best hotel option when doing the bars of the 20th and Oberkampf. Compact, comfortable rooms are equipped with iMac cinema screens, rain showers and high-irony décor care of Philippe Starck, and the bar features interesting live and dj sets (including the Radio Nova crew). Even so, it’s priced to retain the street cred its location demands.